The old saying goes, “Time flies when you are having fun.” Well I would like to make an amendment to that: “Time flies when you are watching baseball.” It seems like Opening Day was just yesterday, and the major-league schedule is already about one-sixth of the way done. Just over a week into the second month of the season, it’s pretty clear where each team finds itself.
As with any other year, there are the teams that have met expectations, those that have exceeded expectations, and, perhaps most notably, those teams that have underperformed their preseason expectations early in the season. While the overachievers are obviously fun to talk about — I’m looking at you Phillies — the underachieving teams come with the most noteworthy storylines. At this juncture in the season, regardless of record to this point, the average baseball fan can see which teams are playing well, and which teams are not.
We are far enough into the season to make some real evaluations about each team’s true talent level, and more importantly, their prospects for the remainder of the season. While the teams that have played above their head will eventually come back down to earth, the teams that have underachieved are already running out of time to truly turn it around for the long haul. This raises the headline question: “How Late is ‘Too Late’?”
Every year there are teams that struggle, more importantly for our purposes, there are always “good” teams that struggle. This year is no different. This year’s victims — the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, and Minnesota Twins — have vastly underachieved what they were projected to do prior to the season’s start. All three were picked to make the playoffs by at least one mainstream baseball media outlet, and all three were almost guaranteed to be contenders this season one way or another. Despite those projections, all three teams have fallen flat on their faces to this point in the season.
New York Yankees
Of the three teams mentioned, no team’s fanbase is in a greater uproar than that of the Yankees. After an 11-18 start to the season, the Yankees already find themselves at the bottom of the American League East and 6.5 games back of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. Fans obviously have some cause for concern, but the story doesn’t stop there.
To this point in the season, the Yankees offense has been lackluster. Currently, the Yankees sit near the bottom of baseball in almost every offensive category, including 26th in runs scored, 27th in home runs, 26th in batting average, 23rd in on base percentage, 28th in slugging percentage, and 26th in wRC+. For a team that was near the top of the league in offense just one year ago, being bottom-five in almost every offensive category is a huge issue early in the season.
While the offense has been the Achilles heel of the Yankees, the pitching staff has been quite a bit better but it still has its own flaws. The Yankees are currently 19th in team ERA and 17th in left-on-base percentage. However, despite those poor numbers, the Yankees do currently boast the seventh-best team FIP, third-best xFIP, and top-five walk and strikeout numbers in baseball. If the Yankees offense can improve at all, the pitching staff as a unit should be able to improve on the team’s poor start to the season.
After beginning the season with a 13.5-percent chance of winning the division, and better than a 30-percent chance of making the postseason according to Fangraphs’ playoff odds, the Yankees are now down to a 3.6-percent chance of winning the division and a 12.3-percent chance of making the postseason, both lowest in the American League East. Despite the Yankees’ offseason moves, including the acquisitions of Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, and Aroldis Chapman, their playoff odds are already looking slim, before the suspended Chapman has even set foot on the field this season.
Of all the three teams mentioned, the Yankees seemed like the one most doomed to regression this season, especially given the elevated ages of a good portion of their starting lineup. While those issues were to be expected, an offensive collapse of this proportion was not to be. Although the season isn’t too young anymore, the Yankees still could bounce back and be a contender this season.
While the Yankees have seen quite a bit of backlash from their own fanbase, the Houston Astros may be in an even worse position early in the season. Currently, the Astros have gotten off to a 12-20 start this season and find themselves at the bottom of the American League West, 6.5 games behind the division-leading Mariners. Not a substantial deficit by any measure, but the Astros have seen a rather precipitous decline in their playoff odds.
After beginning the season with playoff odds just shy of 70 percent and division odds just over 50 percent, the Astros now find themselves with a 32.6-percent chance of making the postseason, with only a 22.6-percent chance of winning the AL West crown. Coming off a Wild Card berth and a surprisingly successful season, the Astros have fallen flat on their face out of the gate in 2016.
As a unit, the Astros have been poor, with significant struggles on both sides of the ball. In terms of pitching, the Astros are in the bottom half of teams in all of baseball, ranking 24th in team ERA and 22nd in team FIP. Led by their ace Dallas Keuchel, who has struggled mightily in the early season, the Astros pitching staff has had quite an up-and-down start to the season.
Offensively, the Astros have been even worse early in the season. As a team, the Astros are 27th in team batting average, 17th in on-base percentage, 11th in slugging percentage, and 18th in runs scored. There are obviously some positives in there, with successful early-season stats from Colby Rasmus, George Springer, and Jose Altuve, but other players, such as Carlos Gomez, have failed to hit at all. As a team, the Astros have not been doing enough to win ball games in the early season.
Given the youth of the Astros, and the boom and bust nature of their offense and pitching staff, there is quite a cause for concern, even if they are better positioned than the Yankees, both in terms of playoff odds and divisional strength. It’s obviously not too late for the Astros, but turning around their season sooner rather than later is critical if they hope to return to the playoffs for a second straight season.
Of the three teams thought to be preseason contenders that are off to poor starts, the Minnesota Twins are pretty clearly in the worst position of all. For the first two weeks of the season, the Twins were arguably the worst team in baseball outside of Atlanta. Just over a month into the season, things aren’t much better, as the Twins currently sit at 8-23 — which is still the worst record in baseball outside of Atlanta — and 13.5 games behind the division-leading Chicago White Sox.
To start the season, the Twins had only a 7.1-percent chance of winning the AL Central, and a 14.8-percent chance of making the postseason. Both are obviously much lower odds than either the Yankees or Astros, but plenty of people picked the Twins to be competitive in the AL Central. After their atrocious start, the Twins’ division odds sit at only 0.3 percent while their playoff odds are only 1.0 percent. Given such a poor start, the Twins have all but ended their chance of making the 2016 postseason just over one month into the season.
On paper, the Twins offense and pitching staff have both been terrible in the early season. In almost every offensive and pitching category, including runs scored, ERA, batting average, and FIP, the Twins sit in the bottom five or ten in baseball. Add to that the struggles and demotion of Byron Buxton and poor performance from quite a few regulars, and the Twins have had a forgettable first month-plus of the season.
Of these three teams, the Twins may be the only one that cannot recover from their early season hole. The Yankees and Astros have both been poor, but both still maintain at least some semblance of playoff hopes. The Twins, on the other hand, have all but eliminated themselves from playoff contention in the early season. One month isn’t a long time in baseball, but sometimes it’s just long enough to ruin a team’s season. For the Twins, that may be painfully true in 2016.